Commentary: Congress must find workable immigration solutions

Issue Date: February 19, 2014
By Bob Stallman
Even though the California drought may reduce farm labor needs temporarily, farmers will continue to face long-term difficulties in hiring enough employees and will continue to press Congress to reform immigration laws.
Bob Stallman

Now that Congress has finished the farm bill, and with high expectations that it will finalize the Water Resources Development Act early this year, farmers remain hopeful that Congress will turn its sights to moving immigration reform to the front burner.

Farmers and ranchers can't wait any longer for effective, long-term solutions to the nationwide agricultural labor crisis, which has forced growers to leave millions of dollars' worth of crops unharvested and threatens the country's food security. Farmers and ranchers need effective, long-term solutions to agricultural labor shortages. And Congress needs to get the job done.

It's not as if Congress would be starting from scratch. The Senate in June passed a balanced, Farm Bureau-supported immigration reform bill that includes a fair and workable farm labor provision. The House took a piecemeal approach, passing a series of immigration reform bills at the committee level, including an agricultural guestworker bill. As this is the second session of the 113th Congress, these bills are still in play.

Passage of the Senate bill last year gave farmers great momentum. And while the House may be doing things differently, farmers and ranchers will be right alongside lawmakers throughout the process, making sure they understand how critical this issue is to agriculture and all consumers who count on U.S.-grown food.

From a Colorado potato grower to a Pennsylvania fruit farmer, and from a South Carolina peach farmer to a Tennessee tobacco grower, farmers all across the country are facing a labor crisis.

And then there is California, the top fruit- and vegetable-producing state. A survey by the California Farm Bureau found that, in 2012, 71 percent of tree fruit growers and nearly 80 percent of raisin and berry growers were unable to find enough employees to prune trees and vines or pick crops.

Although the California drought will likely reduce farm labor needs in that state temporarily, when you have that many farmers around the nation unable to get the workers they need, you have a crisis in farm country. That also means a crisis for Americans who want their food grown in the United States.

The current H-2A temporary agricultural worker program is broken. It artificially raises wages above the market rate, and often does not bring workers to the farm until after the need for them has passed—after the crops have already started to rot.

That's why at the American Farm Bureau's 95th Annual Meeting in January, delegates reaffirmed their strong support for meaningful agricultural labor reforms that ensure farmers and ranchers have access to workers when they are needed. Delegates also voted to support flexibility that would allow the employment of workers by more than one farmer.

Farmers and ranchers need a reliable supply of labor. That is a simple truth. It's about availability and flexibility—neither of which have been hallmarks of the system our farmers, ranchers and growers have operated under for many years.

Congress has known about these problems for more than 30 years. It's time for Congress to put the nation's needs above politics and work toward finding solutions. It's time for Congress to get the job done.

(Bob Stallman, a cattle and rice producer from Texas, is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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